Eight to 10 years ago I began having 4th grade students with physical disabilities work with myself or the guidance counselor (or jointly) on a presentation about their disability that would be presented to their class. I began to include this skill with this age student (about 9 years old) for several reasons. Firstly, students at this age begin to understand that their impairments are likely a life-long condition. They begin to realize that they will not outgrow their condition, and sometimes experience feelings of sadness, anger, hopelessness with this new understanding. The student’s new realization melds well with the opportunity to discuss these issues with a knowledgeable and caring adult, who can help the child reframe their thinking more positively for the future. This also allows the child and adult to explore the child’s true strengths and weakness, discuss how to build on the child’s strength, and explore that all people have strengths and weaknesses (some more visible than others). My experience is that most students very much enjoy this one on one discussion process. Many times the student reveals concerns to the faculty that they have not overtly expressed to their parents. This is a great opportunity for collaboration between the student, parents, and faculty.
Secondly, this process allows the student to gain a deep understanding and become articulate in verbally expressing information about their disability. Parents have often shared information with their child, but it is helpful for medical information to be presented and discussed by someone with a medical background, such as a physical or occupational therapist. Children are used to learning new information at school, and information presented about their disability at school can be done that focuses only on the facts and is void of emotion (sometimes hard for parents to present it this way). When discussing their condition initially, I often ask open ended questions such as,”Tell me what you know about your disability and why you ...cannot xxx, or have trouble with xxx?” This allows me to gauge where the student is at in the process, and then we build from there. I routinely write out the medical portion of the condition as well as find the pictures on the internet, however I always ask the student if this makes sense to them, do you like this picture?, here’s a different picture of the same type of thing, etc. My experience is that most students understand the collaborative part of this project and can be very specific about what they want portrayed (such as, No baby pictures, or an animated picture instead of a really picture, or vice versa). The information needs to be factual, but does not need to be entirely complete. This means, you do not need to list everything about the disability. Typically for students with Spina Bifida, we do not discuss in the presentation (but do in person) the need to self catheterize, and the impact on the bowel and bladder. We recently chose to not include “sex chromosomes” in a discussion of how chromosomes relate to a student’s disability because we thought that it would introduce a line of thought in 4th grade peers that was irrelevant to the child’s presentation. Through development of the presentation and repeated verbal practice, the student develops an automatic verbal response for most questions they will encounter in the future.
Even when a student develops a good understanding of their disability and can articulate that well, that is not enough to build community support and effective inclusion for that student. Presenting this information to the child’s peers helps to develop a greater understanding among them about who they are and why they use the accommodations that the peers routinely see (such as a wheelchair or braces). In previous years, the child’s peers may have had an adult describe the child’s needs, how others could be helpful, etc. However the peers too are now capable of understanding the child’s condition at a deeper level. Additionally it is quite powerful for students with disabilities to present this information themselves. Most of their peers can identify with them about how hard it is to “be in front of the group presenting” (takes guts). Most of their peers are acquiring new medical or scientific knowledge through the presentation and express that the child “knows alot about their condition”. Sometimes peers have been wanting to ask questions about the child’s disability but not sure if socially they should. The presentation gives them that opportunity.
For most students in 4th grade, within a year or two, they will enter another educational setting (Middle school or Junior High) in which more than 1 elementary building feeds. This presentation to grade level peers allows the student with a disability to “teach” his peers about themself and their needs. This process has been effective at developing a “support” community for the student with a disability as they enter these new settings. Familiar peers can be advocates and express appropriate social responses to comments made by unfamiliar peers. This is an effective way to deter bullying. The presentation is also a way to familiarize staff in the new setting about the child’s needs as well as personality. Most staff report that they learned new information in the process and gain a greater understanding about the student in a positive and interesting way.
The elements of the presentation are as follows and seem to be effective, however modifications may be needed to address each child’s individual needs.
A cover page, “Story about me”
I Like: 3 - 4 things that the student likes to do, is good at, including 2 - 3 pictures.
I Do Not Like: Things like homework, cleaning my room etc. This beginning section is to make clear that the student has likes and dislikes just like many of his peers. It is important for peers to clearly get this message.
I Am Unique: This involves 3 - 12 slides about the student's diagnoses, the specifics of the issues that it causes, and what medical treatment is involved. This section is to help the child develop clear terminology and facts about their condition that they not only understand but can articulate. This section is usually developed by faculty with significant preferential collaboration with the student. This section often includes several pictures, such as baby pictures, toddler picture walking with walker, equipment used such as braces, wheelchair, stander, etc
SOMETIMES School Team: Sometimes a slide or two (with pictures) about the people who work with the student at school, such as PT, Resource, etc, mostly as an explanation of what this person does to help them at school, why they might take them from the classroom, etc. Sometimes peers do not know what discipline these “helpers” represent. It offers an opportunity for career awareness in peers as well.
What I want to be when I grow up: A slide describing what the student wants to be when they grow up. Usually a slide that affirms that the student can "be whoever they want to be" as an adult, with the phrase that "my disability doesn't define me." This benefits the student with the disability, as sometimes they are not aware of “future accommodations”. One student who uses a wheelchair told me that in the future he really wanted to drive, but added, “I probably can’t”. When I told them about hand controls for the car he became very excited and wanted to add pictures of what they looked like. This is also a learning experience for peers who may also just be starting to think about what they might want to do when they grow up. Even if a student says that they don’t know what they would like to do as a grown up, they often have more immediate goals, like driving. This section needs to send a powerful statement that the child can dream dreams just as his peers. Another useful statement: My disability doesn’t define who I can be. I may have a few more problems to work through, but they are just problems that I haven’t solved YET! This reframes problems from “barriers” to “unsolved situations”.
Motivational Quote: I usually find several motivational images with quotes online for the student to choose from. These are usually about working hard, not giving up, solving problems, etc.
I want to be remembered as: This is important to set the tone that the student wants to be remembered for personality characteristics (and not remembered just because of their disability).
Once the powerpoint is developed we share it with the parents via Google Drive. The parents review the information and can make changes (or anything that they feel uncomfortable with).
With student and family input, the student shares the presentation with 2 other faculty (of the students choice). Then if they want, they share their presentation with their classmates or their entire grade. All of my students have shared their presentations with the larger audience, however all of this is negotiable for the student and the parent. I would suggest that in a large group that the student project the presentation onto a screen and also use a microphone.
This type of presentation is routinely just done with students who spend most of their time in a regular classroom. This could be done for any student, however, the presentation and development may require significant adult assistance.